Shouldn’t I, as someone in a position of relative socioeconomic security, speak up on behalf of those who cannot? Yet how do I do that in a way that doesn’t seem arrogant or condescending – and how do I do it in a situation that can quickly devolve into harassment?
I’m not in a racial minority group where I live and work, but I am in an economic minority group. I have always lived in a high-income area although I was low-income, and I have usually worked among low-income people who knew that I lived in a high-income area and assumed that I was high-status. Eventually I dealt with these discrepancies by getting more education and a different kind of job, so that I could appear to be high-status even though I was not high-income.
By dressing the part and speaking like an educated person, I let everyone assume I am high-status, because then low-income and high-income people usually treat me better. After years of playing the part of a low-income person, I decided it didn’t gain me anything except disregard from everyone. It had never made low-income people more comfortable around me, because as soon as I opened my mouth, they got befuddled by my two-bit words and my indifference to sports. It’s been better for me to manage people’s expectations on the high end, since most interactions are superficial and transitory, and I naturally project high-status disdain.
Also, with age comes an inducement to either play up to the dignity associated with respected elders, or else to descend to the status of the drooling, self-defecating, babbling, senile, homeless old coot. That type of binary association on the part of others is present in youth as well, but I think there is a tendency to downplay it as mere prejudice, as though everyone in the world did not make split-second decisions about how to classify everyone around them, and then go on to live the rest of their lives with reified conceptualizations. Youth has a tendency to impart a certain optimism about gaining knowledge and overcoming obstacles, a certain kind of disdain for social categorization. I don’t mean to lump together all youth as optimistic or as meliorist; rather, I suggest that they think those dynamics of self-improvement and achievement are significant. They react to extant social forces according to their conditioning, and so differentiate themselves, but they accept a certain kind of social paradigm as self-evident. In the social paradigm of youth, things will change for better or worse, but things will change, and they will somehow be a part of the change.
The social paradigm in old age changes because in US society, all the cultural gravitas is concentrated with the 40-year-olds who obsess over 20-year-olds. I am not referring specifically to sociosexual hierarchy, however. I am taking the old trope of US “youth culture”, which centers on the desires and needs of 20-year-olds, and noting that it is filtered and mediated by 40-year-olds. Given that fact, the 40-year-old view of those 50 and up is dictated by the older person’s increasing conformity with one of two stereotypes, either “helpful parent figure” or “useless piece of trash.”
To the point of the original posting, however, I suggest a similar view of racism. People make ignorant assumptions all the time. Most superficial prejudices are applied in a binary fashion: up or down. If you don’t like stupid racist jokes, then you need to project a clear racist stereotype, so that people will be afraid to make racist jokes. If they assume you are stereotypically high-status, they will likely be too awed to make a racist joke. If they do, you would of course respond with a stereotypically condescending manner, if not complete indifference to their existence. If they assume you are stereotypically low-status, they will likely be too afraid to make a racist joke. If they do, you would of course respond with effusive profanity, or flashing a weapon, or even a little physical aggression. In either case, just treat them as if they were an idiot, and deal with the consequences.
The situation would be different with people who know you better, or who are technically peers. Those cases also require playing to type, but with more nuance. But most interactions that are problematic probably happen on the superficial level, where it is better to manage expectations by leveraging binary stereotyping.
This is pretty much what happens in most of the publicized cases of police brutality, where the victim is often too stupid to realize that playing the low stereotype (not necessarily on a transactional level, but in overall characteristics) means that the officially appointed dispensers of violence will, in fact, dispense violence on them, then justify it as a defense of peace and order, and then get away with it. Cops are hired and trained for the purpose of identifying troublemakers within a couple of seconds and acting swiftly to eliminate any threat, on the principle that anyone who they identify as a troublemaker is a de facto criminal, a challenge to every principle of goodness and virtue, someone who must be immediately crushed until the police-person no longer feels a sense of imminent personal danger. That’s what happens when someone embodies the will of the people as the authorized dispenser of violent action. That is not an “American” problem or a “White” problem, nor even a “middle-class” problem. It is written into the definition of what the police are for. It is not necessary for “law enforcement”, but it is necessary in order to justify a standing police force. And a standing police force is necessary in order to make the middle classes feel like they live in a good society, a place where they are willing to buy property, pay taxes, vote for the prescribed parties, and send their children to school.
So, you could say it is a middle-class problem, except that the problem is endemic to all of US society. I suspect it is very similar in other modern democratic societies, especially those with similar cultural heritage in the pre-20th-century British or European traditions.